Updated: Apr 6
We all have our ideas of what it would be like to own a dog. Dogs need mental stimulation and exercise, so naturally, some of us decide to get a puppy with the intention of becoming more active. Whether we chose to obtain a dog to force ourselves to be more active or to have an additional companion to take with us on new adventures, sometimes our intentions aren't well suited to the dog, or we discover an issue that will take time and planning to resolve. Whatever the reason may be, we can all agree that the main reason anyone obtains a dog is for their loving comical nature, and vibrant charisma for life. Their manner of showing affection, loyalty, and willingness to explore the environment is so contagious that we can't help but want to take them everywhere with us.
Part of the idea of "going everywhere with us" includes traveling, which inherently involves a car. For some dogs, this is a problem, and can inadvertently ruin our purest intentions. Over the years, I have learned that there are two main reasons why dogs develop a hatred for riding in the car and the reasons are interrelated. Usually, this problem starts as early as eight weeks of age.
Pause for cuteness. That picture is just too adorable! My heart just exploded. Okay, back to the article, but this picture has a point. The main reasons why dogs learn to hate riding in the car are motion sickness and anxiety. They go hand in hand and it starts when they're very young. We'll look at each reason separately and see how they tie together when we discuss anxiety in greater detail.
1. MOTION SICKNESS
When owners obtain a puppy, they do so at roughly eight weeks of age. Technically, their very first ride is slightly before eight weeks of age when they make the long journey to our homes. Nevertheless, their first BIG trip is their first vet visit. Puppies need vaccines starting at eight weeks of age and get vaccines every two to four weeks until they reach sixteen to eighteen weeks, depending on their vaccine schedule. That means that before they are five months of age, they can have up to a total of up to 14 car rides before they are six months old. There's an important reason why I mention this, I promise! Hang in there with me for a second.
Motion sickness occurs when there is an over-stimulation of the brain associated with balance and motion (1). The inner ear is part of the vestibular system comprised of canals and sensitive organs which control our equilibrium, balance, and spatial orientation (2). In puppies, this sensitive part of the body does not fully develop until six months of age (2).
Due to the under-development of the inner ear coupled with the number of times puppies need to ride in a car, it's easy to see how they could get motion sickness. There are ample opportunities to overstimulate that organ, sending a message to the brain saying, "I think I'm going to be sick." It's an ugly cycle. Imagine your puppy's first car ride to the vet and proceeding to vomit. That is a VERY STRONG learning experience for your young dog. Have you ever had food poisoning or a reaction to a specific drink? I'm willing to bet that one of three things happened after that incident: 1. You never ate that specific dish again. 2. You never ate at that restaurant again, or 3. You never ate or drank anything remotely similar ever again. It's classical conditioning at its finest! I get in the car, get sick, and don't want to ride in it again, please! To be honest I'm nauseous just thinking about it!
Let's dive right into this topic because it is directly related to motion sickness. There's an equal possibility your dog may be sensitive to stress. A startling sound, pressing on the brakes too quickly, not securing the puppy properly, coupled with rapid movement while in the car are all reasons for the dog to resent riding in the car ever again. Puppies are particularly impressionable when they're young because they are going through a sensitive phase called the Critical Age of Socialization. Learning and memories (especially negative ones) during this sensitive period, have a profound effect on the dog later in life.
As mentioned earlier, motion sickness and anxiety tie in together. The dog could also be afraid of becoming ill in the car. The anticipation of getting nauseous and vomiting can cause additional anxiety. It is equally likely that if you only get in the car to go to the vet and the dog has a negative experience at the facility, the dog will quickly learn that getting in the car yields less than ideal consequences. Better not get in the car at all. Right?
Thankfully, most puppies grow out of motion sickness once their inner ear is fully developed at around six months of age. It can take up to a year for other dogs to "grow out of it." It takes even longer for other dogs because it can take time to "undo" any damage already done. Some dogs, unfortunately, don't grow out of it. In these cases, we need to be more realistic about our expectations for the dog.
This article isn't meant to scare you out of getting into the car with your pups. The purpose is to increase awareness of why it happens. Knowing the cause is the first step to helping your dog overcome this difficult time in its life. For specific tips, follow my blog for a separate post about what you can do to help your canine companion with car rides.
1. Campbell, Sharon L. “My Dog Doesn't Love Car Rides. What Could Be the Issue?” Fear Free Happy Homes, 31 Mar. 2021, https://www.fearfreehappyhomes.com/my-dog-doesnt-love-car-rides-what-could-be-the-issue/.
2. Spivak, Mark. “Motion-Car Sickness.” CPT, 31 Jan. 2021, https://cpt-training.com/blog/motion-car-sickness/.